It is said that knowledge is a curse, but my knowledge of the dramatic arts was the last thing I ever expected to manifest this truth, out of all my skills. For those of us Kenyans who know how to read the mise-en-scene that is downtown Nairobi, the last few weeks preceding and during French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit have been interesting to say the least. But as a film director and scriptwriter, and I am sad to say I have witnessed a lot of terrible acting – a true mutilation of the theatrical arts upon the streets of the city. Still, I am not sure the practitioners of this travesty were aware of the fact that they were, to the trained eye, in terrible need of dramatic correction. The theatre show they produced was untitled, but I want to call it ‘These Are Not Your Streets – Part1’ and it has been showing on the street, right beside you, if you had the eyes to see.
Let me explain, but let’s make it interesting; What do the following three Kenyans have in common? A tall ‘msee wa kupima weight’ sitting silently and openly in the daytime along the Kenyatta Avenue pavement, his head lowered, all his attention on his phone as people pass him by. A sensibly dressed woman sitting on a tree stump on a Saturday, around lunch hour, chewing through a large roasted maize cob slowly and making no attempt to seek the shade of a nearby tree with a bench underneath. A sweet vendor out late, about eight thirty in the night, leaning silently against a lamppost where the shade hides the upper part of his body and only the sweets in the small bucket hang between his legs in the light. Well, can you guess?
For one, they are all doing things counter-intuitive to the nature of the jobs they are supposed to be doing. The msee wa kupima weight is not calling out to customers or nervously looking out for city council. Why? The woman on the tree stump is pouring sweat, and wiping it with a handkerchief, but not moving into the shade? Not even taking off her backpack? Why? And the sweet vendor, what’s up with that? That’s downright suspicious. At that time no one buys sweets from bus windows. At that time, even if a sweet vendor was leaning there, his little bucket would not be arranged for daytime. If I was directing that scene in a film and I saw that extra, I would yell ‘Cut!’ and send him back to the costume department for a makeover.
I’ll tell you what else they all have in common; they are all plainclothes police. The city has been on mini-lockdown these last few weeks. The oblivious and the privileged have probably not even noticed. But every young man from Eastlands, every street urchin, every hawker, every tout and bodaboda rider, every sex worker will tell you it has been perilous. It has been necessary to be able to read the stranger on the street and decide on the quality of their acting. If you failed to see all the bad acting happening around you, you might have found yourself in some terrible trouble. Ask the two matatu touts I saw at OTC, handcuffed by a plainclothes police officer who was dressed like an underground rapper, bling and torn jeans and all. At what point did they realize that he was not a rapper? When it was too late, evidently. Ask the young man I saw on Wednesday morning sitting near the Tom Mboya statue in downtown Nairobi, two bad actors standing over him, glowering down at his face as one searched his pockets. As I was walking away, I think I heard a slap. At what point, as they walked towards him, did he realise they were not going to a nearby office but that their office was the street, and he was their unfortunate business?
If the last few weeks have taught me anything, it is that everyone needs some knowledge of acting. At least, everyone needs to be able to differentiate the good from the bad. You see, even the real wajango –the ones who grab you and press a pistol in your back demanding your money and phone– even they usually need to ‘act’ a little in order to get close enough before they show their true colours. I have a feeling that that slight bit of theatre education might not only make us safer on our streets, but also that it will change the entertainment industry for the better. I don’t even blame the poor security officers, most of them must have been trying out theatrical roles for the first time ever. However, I request the government to invest a little more in the theatrical arts, if just because it seems to be such a critical skill for national security. God forbid those who want to harm Kenyans learn good acting first, right?
Now as a professional, and in general, I don’t trust bad acting. Even a good friend will sometimes fail the good acting test and often you discover that they were trying to lie or withhold some information in these cases, such as why they need to borrow money. But now comes the twist in the tale… I was careful all through the week to keep a safe distance from any of the bad actors, and lord have mercy, they poured the whole force into this theatre production without auditioning them. There were some terrible examples indeed. I saw a sweet vendor even ignore a mother and child. Sweet vendors love selling to children. I think the biggest factor of the bad acting that stood out was the simple ignorance of the real life of the character whose costume they had chosen to wear.
I didn’t think it through very well though. I should have remembered the other constant I have observed in most bad actors I have directed – they are often unaware that their acting is bad and are utterly convinced that they are the next Lupita. I should have seen it from their point of view. They must have sat and wondered, but how does he not fall for our marvellous acting? So instead of avoiding suspicion, I think I must have aroused it instead. But thankfully, they finally found a decent actor to send my way. On Tuesday morning, as I walked up the hill up State House Road to go to Pawa254, a short bespectacled old man, bald with white hair, was walking slowly up ahead. As I came up the road, he watched me wipe the sweat off my face and smoothly took the opportunity to start a conversation.
‘Kuna joto leo, eh? Kwanza kama uko na njaa ndio unaisikia vizuri.” (It’s hot today, eh? Especially if you are hungry, that’s when you really feel the heat).
I liked how smooth his improvised entry was and I am not a bad actor myself, so I smiled and decided to walk with him and chat a little about life.
‘Nikifika ninapoenda kwanza nitakunywa maji baridi ndio nitafute kachai,” I replied. (When I get to where I’m going, I’ll have to take some cold water and then look for tea).
‘Eh, yaani siku hizi kuna njaa. Ukiona jua imewaka hivi, jua kuna njaa.’ (Eh, these days there’s hunger. When you see the sun blazing like this, there’s hunger).
‘Kweli mzee, watu wamesota sana. Sasa mimi naingia hivi.’ (That’s true, old man. Now, I’m going to turn here).
At this point I was about to turn right into State House Crescent and he was still walking ahead of me. He made his first mistake then, he walked on as if he was still going up State House Road before turning again to follow me. I looked in his face and saw him take the mistake with the grace of a seasoned performer… I smiled. How did the police find such a great actor? I could use such talent for my next film. But now I was curious.
‘Kumbe ulikuwa unakuja huku kama mimi?’ (Oh, so you were coming to this place, like me?)
‘Eeeh, ninataka kununua sigara kwa hiyo duka ya mluhya.’ (Eeeh, I want to buy a cigarette at this kiosk run by the Luhya guy).
Again he was impressive, he had done some homework and knew that there is a small tuck shop by the gate of Pawa254 run by a relaxed old man called Stevo. I smiled. He didn’t seem rehearsed at all – a natural actor, but not on your screen. We walked together, discussing the economy, and the heat. When we got to the gate, I bought him a chapati at the kibanda opposite the shop. I told him I was now going to work and wished him well. And I walked away wondering if I had been going about the situation completely the wrong way. It seems, the better plan is to pretend you can’t see bad acting. Perhaps I simply should not be thinking like a scriptwriter or film director when I am on the street. Perhaps it is I who should be perfecting my acting on the street, playing the complicated role of ‘man-who-does-not-see-bad-acting’ as I walk among the throng. So for the last few days as Macron’s visit has wound up, I have attempted to relax a little more around the bad acting all around town. I must admit though, it has not been easy.
Truthfully, sometimes they did not bother to act at all. Some days – specifically from Thursday through to Saturday – it was like a badly directed dystopian horror film. I guess they were worried that there might be some trouble before and during the busiest dates of the UNEA summit. It was well into the very dystopian territory of ‘physical-presence-as-threat’ and violence hung heavy above every street like rain clouds, waiting for an excuse to pour down. I remember walking up Wabera Street from Mama Ngina Street and a burly gentleman following behind me for a few minutes, his nose barely inches from the back of my neck. Then he suddenly sped on, perhaps to follow other prey. As he passed me, I remember noticing a small can clutched tightly in his hand, his finger on the top part of it. My guess, it was a can of mace. And going by the expression on the man’s face, (alikuwa amebonda like he had safari ants in his underwear) I sense he was disappointed that I hadn’t given him any excuse to use it.
There is a shop window at Kipande house facing the street at which we sometimes stop to dance as we come from Pawa254. Yes we do; what can I say, we are after all artists – and art is a way of life, not a nine-to-five occupation. I was walking ahead of everyone else as we came up to it that evening and then I saw them — a large group of bad actors standing around the spot, at least twelve, pretending to be regular people heading home. Except, they were all drifting too close to your side, bumping you on the shoulder, or in some cases, turning right round to walk by your side and listen to your conversation. It was not a time to be oblivious. I know bad acting, but I also know when people are not acting anymore. There was no more pretence of theatre. We hurried on, past the dancing spot, and on our way. We didn’t dance that day.
We got to our different bus stages without incident, but not before one tall gentleman had suddenly turned to block my friend’s path and take a deep long sniff of his face right in the middle of Moi Avenue, trying to smell him for traces of ganja. Now surely, that is well within the realm of sexual harassment. If I were directing that film, I would have fired that actor immediately for breach of contract. That was not bad acting anymore, just very bad behaviour. It should not be condoned, in any sort of theatre produced for public consumption.
I have been thinking about the whole exercise in a new light, wondering if all over the city, young people like me were also feeling the overbearing weight of the security performance. Feeling restricted to just given spaces, unwelcome in some. Feeling as though they were not really the audience of it, because why would the cast of a play meant for me seem so unfriendly to me? As if I was not the intended audience of the show, but some charlatan roaming about their stage. I thought this was my city too. You can see why I gave their theatre production the title that I did. I have been wondering if better acting on their part would have made a difference to how their show made me feel. It is a long shot, but I have decided to volunteer some free theatrical advice.
To all you first time actors and actresses who debuted in the country’s biggest theatre production this year, congratulations and kudos. Welcome to the entertainment industry and good luck. I have two quick pieces of advice for you after the show. Your performances were affected by two major first-time actor mistakes. The first and most common mistake many of you made was being over-serious. There is no reason why a sweet vendor I have never met would be glaring at me angrily instead of trying to sell me sweets. Some of you, especially the men, already have faces that are ‘angry by default’. For such people, deliberately trying to look serious moves your performance quickly from the genre of drama to the genre of horror. Watch out for that next time.
The next and most common mistake you made, though I am much more lenient about this one, was a very common acting mistake – unintended smiling. I mostly observed this among the actresses – why, there was one who smiled right at me even as she attempted to steal a photo of my face on her phone, perhaps amused by her own undercover actions. Good acting needs one to not let their emotions give them away. I am glad though, I much preferred the smiling ladies to the wasee-wa-kubonda. Which young man doesn’t like a pretty actress giving them some attention? Your next production is bound to be much better if you remember these two tips.
I have also been thinking about the old man who spoke to me on my way to work. Why me? Why did he follow and ‘perform’ for me? Who asked him to? For what purpose? I wonder if he does it for a living, this subtle and not-much-known form of theatre acting. When I told my friend Dulizmo about it, he didn’t hesitate;
‘Huyo ni mbleina. Hiyo ndiyo wera yake. Huyo alijengwa ng’at ama rwabe akutrace mpaka penye unaingia.’ (That’s a spy. That’s his job. He was paid a hundred or two hundred shillings to follow you to your destination.)
I am not surprised to hear that opinion of the old man but I am much more interested in the nature of his work. If he does it regularly, then he is a professional actor operating in the theatre of real life. Old man, if they show you this article, come and look for me at the place you followed me to. We didn’t get the chance to talk about your acting career and I really think your best days are not yet behind you. You have what it takes to be a great film or theatre actor. And you owe me a chapatti.
I reiterate; I don’t blame the huge cast of ‘These Are Not Your Streets – Part1’ entirely for their bad acting. Again, experience with Kenyan TV and theatrical productions has taught me that many times, the reason the acting is bad is because someone tampered with the production and/or rehearsal budget. You can’t blame an actor for something like bad costuming, or an inappropriate prop. Someone with a good eye for theatre is supposed to help them with such things. Perhaps I have discovered a unique opportunity for actors and theatre practitioners like myself. It seems that the security profession is in need of good theatre production skills much more than they might admit. And lord knows, paying work for artists can be hard to come by. I am glad to see that they put up such a concerted effort to perform their show and some of them, such as the mzee who spoke to me, certainly deserve at least a Kalasha award.
And to all other young film and theatre actors all over the country; it turns out, your country needs you!
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Kenya’s Social Justice Movement: Remembering Our Unsung Heroes
Gathanga Ndung’u commemorates activists whose lives were snatched away by Kenya’s brutal capitalism. Activists who launched a war against a system of impunity, a world one hundred times larger, mightier, and older than them, but, Ndung’u explains, that each of them mounted a defence to protect and defend their comrades and communities.
The independence struggle of 1920 to 1963 against the colonial government was followed by the second liberation struggle from 1982 to 1992 against the dictatorship of the President Daniel Arap Moi. This was a fight for democracy, a just constitution and a fight for civic space. This culminated with repealing of Section 2A of the constitution in December 1991 which had made Kenya a one-party state for almost a decade. The new, or third wave of liberation has been carried out by social justice movements in Kenya together with a multitude of organisations.
This reflection focuses on three committed activists whose lives were cut short by the same system that took our independence heroes. They dedicated their lives in the new wave of struggle which has been characterised by extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances by the police, the shrinking of democratic space, high level corruption, the ever-widening gap between the poor and rich and the privatisation of basic services.
The Social Justice Centres’ Working Group (SJCWG) is an umbrella body of more than sixty social justice centres based in the communities across the country. It was formed early in 2018 when individual grassroots human rights centres decided to come together to tackle the many injustices in the country and more so in the poor urban areas. The Social Justice Centres Movement has also suffered losses in its five years of existence with the lives of three human rights defender (HRD’s) ending in tragic ways. The richness of life is not through material accumulation, but rather through the impact we make on others.
In this post I celebrate the lives and activism of our fallen comrades as a testament to their work and in the hope that they did not die in vain, and they can inspire others.
Carol ‘Mtetezi’ Mwatha
Carol Mwatha was a mother of two and was a vibrant and committed human rights defender who dedicated her life to serving the community. She worked to ensure that the streets were safe for the youths who had been a target of police killings, arbitrary arrests, extortion and harassments. She started her activism long before the formation of Dandora Community Justice Centre (DCJC) and she had created an elaborate network with other community organisers, activists and organisations fighting for the same cause.
The truth about her tragic end will probably never be known due to the manner in which the state agents hastily created what seemed like an obvious cover up and disseminated the story to media houses without reaching out to the family first, as protocol would have demanded. This was a deliberate move to control the narrative. Carol went missing on 6 February 2019 only to be found at the city morgue on 12 February registered under a wrong name. Her family and friends had been at the same facility on the 8 and 9 February and didn’t find her among those that had been brought to the facility from the day she went missing.
The police story lacked credence from the very beginning. The mortuary attendants failed to disclose the officer in charge on the day she was purportedly brought to the morgue. The post-mortem was delayed, and even then, the wrong name was suspiciously entered – Carolyn Mbeki – and the police went ahead and informed the media of her ‘discovery’ on 12 February even before informing the family.
Carol was a visionary leader with excellent organisational and mobilisation talents. The idea of forming a centre in the community was taken in her house at an informal meeting with her comrades. She saw the need to have a community centre to bring different community organisers into Dandora under one umbrella and speak in one voice. She sat down together with her comrades from DCJC and committed to organising and mobilising her community against the many social injustices they experienced daily.
As a mother, Carol rejected the idea of bringing-up her children in a context where injustices are normalised. To this end, she committed to fight extra-judicial killings, police extortion, arbitrary arrests and harassment of youths which were and still are a common trend in Dandora and other high-density and poor neighbourhoods. She knew what she was standing against but her zeal for a safe Dandora superseded her fears. Alaman James, a long-time friend of Carol notes she was a frequent visitor to Kwa Mbao Police Post and other police stations in Dandora as she tried to secure the freedom of community members who had been arbitrarily arrested. Alaman recounts how Carol – his church friend turned activist – spent countless hours going late at the night to police stations and from one organisation to another trying to help victims. Her resolve to follow-up police killings set her against powerful forces which were used to acting with complete impunity. The establishment of DCJC in the community definitely sent a strong a message which made these forces feel threatened.
Faith Kasina, another close friend of Carol and a coordinator of Kayole Community Justice Centre, described her as a mother figure to most of her comrades. Despite her lean frame, she had wide shoulders for her comrades to lean on when they needed her. She was an elder sister, a mother figure to some, and a close confidant to many. Faith talks of a comrade who would frequently reach out to her friends and comrades just to make sure they were well. Through her friends’ accounts, I learnt about a leading comrade who stood against overwhelming odds no matter the outcome.
Carol Mwatha launched a war against a system of impunity, a system one hundred times larger than her, mightier than her, older than her, but she mounted a defence to protect her children and the community where she lived.
Henry Ekal Lober “Turu”
On 21 February 2021, we lost another committed comrade. Members of the social justice movement learnt of his death after a six-day search ended with the tragic revelation. Ekal had lost consciousness and was taken to Kenyatta National Hospital. Members of his social justice centre had spent days looking for him without help from the hospital administration. With the lethargy and negligence in our public hospitals and because he was not accompanied by anyone to the hospital, he was left to the mercy of fate. He succumbed to his condition and died.
Ekal or Turu as he was known by many, hailed from Loki in Turkana hence his alias. Just like many in Mathare, Ekal found a second home there and he would spend the rest of his years in the community. He came to Nairobi looking for a promising life after leaving his pastoralist family hundreds of kilometres from the capital. Mathare welcomed him with open arms, and he ‘fell in love’ with the place, never to return home.
Ekal had slurred speech, a limp and wound that had become septic overtime, and he struggled with both alcoholism and the institutionalised poverty in the ghettos of the city. Despite these problems, he was a forever jovial, brutally honest with everyone and coherent when it came to articulating issues of injustices caused by the system. For this, some referred to him as professor.
Mary Njeri, one of the administrators at Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), recalls her moments with Ekal with nostalgia: “Even though he struggled with alcoholism, he was smart and very clear when it came to articulating his thoughts and what he envisioned for the community. He always carried a pen and a book for jotting down ideas and reflections and a magazine to read in his free time. I sometimes wondered what he would be scribbling and one day out of curiosity, I decided to have a look in one of his notebooks …I was shocked to learn that Ekal was conducting one-man research on Water Accessibility in Kosovo, an area of Mathare where he lived. He did all this with zero budget. Despite his failing health, he would criss-cross the narrow alleys to interview residents on his topic.”
On this particular day, he came straight to Njeri. She wrote and translated the conversation that ensued:
Ekal: Hello Njeri
Njeri: I’m fine, what about you?
Ekal: I’m fine. Are you still in college? Do you know how to use a computer?
Njeri: Yeah, I know how to.
Ekal: (Unfolding his research papers), I would like you type up my research report on water.
Njeri was left speechless after going through the content of his research. It was written in a very clear manner capturing most aspects of the water crisis. Ekal was proactive when it came to action and chose to do what was needed without waiting for donors to fund his work. This is the true spirit of an organic community organiser. Apart from this, he always wrote articles which he would ask comrades to type for him. Yet he was an intellectual that got smothered by the system, slowly sucking his dreams out of him, leaving him hollow and broken.
Ekal was a committed member of Bunge La Mwananchi (People’s Parliament). It is from this space where he became friends with Gacheke Gachihi one of the founder members of MSJC. Ekal floated the idea of forming a JM Kariuki Social Justice Centre named after Josiah Mwangi ‘JM’ Kariuki, who was an activist and politician assassinated during Jomo Kenyatta’s regime. MSJC would later be formed in 2014 to document and fight extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and other social injustices.
I came to know Ekal in 2020 at various functions organised by MSJC. In all these meetings, he always created ‘beautiful trouble’, the kind of trouble I call, ‘necessary trouble’. He would not let the meetings proceed without following protocol. He would speak his mind and oppose anything that he deemed not to be in the spirit of true and radical justice.
According to Njeri, Ekal wouldn’t hide his disappointments and offer his unsolicited criticism and would repeat it over and over until his counsel was heeded. And of course, it was always positive criticism. Through this approach, he was instrumental in MSJC’s growth and helped to ensure that the centre did not veer off from its core and founding mandates.
Oyunga Pala, a Kenyan journalist, columnist and an editor, teamed up with Ekal and became a committed member of the Mathare Green Movement where, with Ekal, he embarked on an ambitious project to clean and green Mathare. Hailing from the arid areas of Turkana in Northwest Kenya, Ekal understood very well the role trees play in our ecology. He invested his time in increasing the tree cover of Mathare knowing very well that most of the trees wouldn’t benefit him personally but would serve the generations to come.
The Mathare Green Movement went ahead and transformed garbage sites and polluted areas into small parks. These small parks serve as oases of hope in Mathare giving us a sneak preview of the Mathare dream that Ekal believed in. In his final tribute to Ekal, Oyunga Pala describes the futuristic dream that Ekal saw for Mathare; the future where youths could craft their destinies by being proactive in shaping and charting a new path full of hope. Ekal was one of the few comrades who was proactive, pragmatic, brutally honest, and committed to the struggle with a jovial soul. He always strived to rise above the system’s dragnets stifling his spirit.
This is my ode to Ekal:
May the homeless birds from the wilderness find a tree to perch on in Mathare,
from a restless journey may they find home, an oasis of peace and comfort.
May your trees be home to thousands of homeless birds,
ejected from their ancestral homes due to ecological disruption.
May your trees clean the foul air in Mathare,
the foul air of ethnicity, crime, despair and hopelessness
and breathe out fresh air rich in hope, a brighter future and common goal of prosperity.
May the roots of your trees hold together the soil of Mathare,
the soil with the blood of Mau Mau and many slain youths.
May that rich history be held together by the roots of your trees.
May that soil never be eroded or washed away.
Let your trees hold the rich history for us and for the future generations.
On 4 February 2022, the Social Justice Centres’ Movement was thrown into yet another deep mourning after the sudden death of Comrade Alphonse Genga. Alphonse was a 21-year old comrade of Githurai Social Justice Centre (GSJC) whose demise occurred four days to from his 22nd birthday.
Brian Mathenge, a close friend, and a colleague of Alphonse paints a picture of a young, vibrant comrade fresh from school, who decided to make an impact in his community. He chose the unfamiliar route, to commit his life to protect the weak, the marginalised, the voiceless and the poor in Kenya. Within a year, Alphonse was a powerhouse in activist circles due to his sincere commitment. He used art to reach out to more community members and to educate, organise and mobilise.
Alphonse would later join the Mau Mau study cell organised in Githurai. Through the ideological grounding classes he attended, he joined the Communist Party of Kenya (CPK) where he dedicated his time to reading and understanding Marxist theory. This sharpened him politically and he would later use the same knowledge to reach more people from his area of residence in Roysambu. He preached and practiced socialism.
Alphonse wore many hats, but if there is one aspect that defined him it was his commitment to ecological justice. He took part in the annual climate strike, he had joined several ecological justice groups such as Eco-Vista, Ecological Justice League, Kasarani Ecological League, Green Jewel Movement and Githurai Green Movement among others.
During the posthumous birthday and celebration of his life, one of his friends confessed that Alphonse had quit football, giving up a talent that he had nurtured since childhood so that he could spend more time in the fight for his community in Githurai.
On 2 February, he was involved in a road accident. He suffered an internal head injury and a broken arm. He was rushed to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) where he was left unattended for more than ten hours, yet he was a critical condition. Alphonse was in acute pain; his centre members were in panic in the hospital compound. It was only after a confrontation between his friends and the hospital staff that the doctors attended to him although with great lethargy. At the time of his death, his broken arm had not been attended to, more than 36 hours after admission. It was this kind of neglect in a system dominated by privatised healthcare that gradually and painfully squeezed the life out of Alphonse. The same healthcare system he was fighting to improve cut his life abruptly short.
It is an agonising fact which makes one reel with pain to learn that a public hospital such as KNH has a private wing to attend to their well-to-do clientele while the general populace is segregated in general wards without enough medics, nurses, drugs and beds for patients. Only the rich get services as they can afford to pay for them while the poor daily die in droves. Privatisation of the healthcare system in the country has turned the entire system into a for-profit venture.
To give a befitting tribute to our fallen comrade, it is the responsibility of every comrade to demand a total overhaul of the cartel-ridden healthcare system and replace it with a service that serves the people.
In the spirit of Alphonse Genga, it’s NOT YET UHURU until our healthcare is liberated. Let’s ensure we fight for justice, dignified lives, and a better healthcare system as comrade Genga lived doing.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
The Nairobi We Want: Re-Imagining the City Through a Public Commuter Train System
In designing my map of Kenya Railways, I was fascinated by the history of the meter-gauge network and the new Standard Gauge Railroad. But what stood out to me was that the lines of the Nairobi Commuter Rail network were short, had only a few stops, and only operated a few times a day.
My name is Kara Fischer! I currently live in New York City, and I’m 24 years old. I’ve loved trains for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been making fantasy maps ever since I was eleven years old, when I visited Europe and saw trains absolutely everywhere—it was nothing like the almost-nonexistent train system at home in the United States. I wanted to imagine what it would be like if the United States had just as many trains as Europe, and so I started sketching maps with pencil and paper, one state at a time.
A few years later, I discovered Cameron Booth’s blog transitmap.net, which collected and reviewed maps from all over the world. Seeing all the wonderful maps on that blog inspired me to start mapping existing systems as well as imaginary ones, and I decided to make my own blog, at https://thetransitgirl.
Until recently, most of the maps I made were focused on the United States, with a few maps of European cities mixed in. However, that changed at the start of 2022 when I saw a news article about Morocco’s Al Boraq high-speed rail line. I’d had no idea that Morocco actually had high-speed rail at all, and when I looked into it I found that Morocco had a fascinating network of high-speed, intercity, and local trains, with a level of service far greater than what we have in the US. But what I couldn’t find was a map clearly showing the service patterns—and so I decided to make one myself, piecing together all the information I could find online. I’m certain there are errors, including a few missing stations, but I was still quite proud of the map I created.
Since Morocco’s network had wound up being an unexpected joy, I started researching railway networks around the world to try to find other countries to map. Many countries had networks far too large to permit showing all stations in a single map, while many more countries only had one or two train routes, if any. And of the countries that did have networks of the size I was looking for, most didn’t post their timetables online, or had websites that weren’t viewable from the United States. But I did end up finding two national networks that I wanted to map—Estonia and Kenya.
In designing my map of Kenya Railways, I was fascinated by the history of the meter-gauge network and the new Standard Gauge Railroad. But what stood out to me was that the lines of the Nairobi Commuter Rail network were short, had only a few stops, and only operated a few times a day. This was different from most of the systems I’d seen elsewhere in the world: usually, lines with infrequent service and spread-out stops would go considerably further from the city center, while short lines that stayed mostly within a city would have frequent service and lots of stops close together. So the way I saw it, Nairobi was using commuter rail to do a metro’s job, and its current network wasn’t serving the needs of the citizens. This was remarkable to me since I knew most people in Nairobi didn’t have cars.
And that’s what raised the question: what if Nairobi had an actual metro, with frequent stops and frequent service? Where would the lines go? Almost on a whim, I decided to try making a fantasy map, just like the maps I’d made since I was eleven.
I started with the existing commuter rail lines as a template, and the first change I made was to add more frequent stations. I looked at both Apple Maps and Google Maps to try to spot the major roads and population centers along the train lines, and I started adding stations in locations designed to be easy to get to, mostly along major roads. Outside the city center, I tried to have stations be approximately one kilometer apart: that way, the entire path of the route would have stations within walking distance, but there wouldn’t be so many stations that the trains would be slowed down by all the stops they’d have to make. Within the city center, however, I spaced stations closer together, since there would be more popular destinations—this would reduce walking distances for many passengers, and it’d also prevent individual stations from becoming too crowded. This method of spacing stations is quite common around the world—a good example is the rail network in Chicago, where I lived for five years.
With more stations added along the existing commuter rail routes, the next question was how to bring service to the parts of the city that weren’t already next to the commuter rail. I decided to mostly follow existing major roads, which is a common approach in cities around the world. Major roads tend to already go to major destinations, after all, and there are multiple options for how the tracks can be built: within the road sharing lanes with cars, in the median at the center of the road, elevated above the road, or in tunnels underneath. Waiyaki Way, Thika Rd, and Mombasa Rd were obvious choices, and I decided to also add an additional downtown route that could go along either Moi Ave or Tom Mboya St. At the outskirts of the city, I tried to connect some of the larger suburbs, but I completely missed both Rongai and Ngong due to a visual quirk in Apple Maps.
In putting together the route segments to determine where each line would go, I made sure every line would serve the downtown area, and I also made sure that every line intersected with every other, so that passengers wouldn’t need to make more than one transfer. The current commuter rail network has the route from Central Station to Makadara as its busiest segment, and so I kept that in my map, sending three lines along that corridor. Since this was the core of the map, I decided to color the three lines to make the flag of Kenya, to tie together the map’s aesthetic design.
When I posted the first version of the map to Tumblr, I expected just a few people to see it—that’s what had happened with all my previous maps, after all. Since I didn’t know anyone from Kenya, I didn’t expect I’d actually get any feedback from locals on how well I’d understood the city’s geography. But after a few days, my map was shared on Twitter by Mbithi Masya, and suddenly I was getting a flood of responses to it from Nairobians. None of my maps had ever gone viral before, and so this was incredibly exciting—and I definitely wanted to take the opportunity to use this feedback to improve the map!
And so, a few hours after the map went viral, I started working on a second version. The most common criticism I’d seen was that the map didn’t serve Rongai or Ngong—both of which I was able to connect to the network by extending the Purple and Green Lines. One person from Githurai convinced me to send the Purple Line there rather than sending it out to Ruai and Mihango, while another person brought up the lack of service to Kitengela. This highlighted the lack of actual commuter rail in my map, and so I added several commuter rail lines out of Nairobi Terminus—some following existing tracks, while others would follow new alignments to connect additional suburbs. (This included Ruai and Mihango, so that they wouldn’t have to lose service due to the rerouted Purple Line.)
When I posted the second version of the map later that evening, it started spreading just as quickly as the first one had—and this time, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, where even people who had taken issue with the original map were thrilled about how I’d addressed their concerns in the second version. This was unexpected—I’d never been to Nairobi, and so I’d never fathomed that I’d be able to make a map that would actually appeal to locals. And before I knew it, my map was getting noticed by public figures such as Sakaja Johnson and Charles Kabaiku, the latter of whom expressed interest in inviting me out to Nairobi. I don’t actually know whether or not he was joking, but if he wasn’t, I’d certainly love to visit for a few weeks to gain an on-the-ground understanding of the city’s infrastructure!
All that being said, though, this map’s ultimately a pipe dream—or a Tube dream, I suppose. In planning the routes, I deliberately avoided questions like how hard the network would be to build, or how much it would cost, or the impacts the train lines would have on the surrounding areas. The map’s aspirational, but not realistic—I’m not the person to go to for actual solutions to Nairobi’s current transportation needs. One Twitter user called me “mzungu”, and while I hadn’t heard the term before, it’s definitely accurate: I’m a foreigner, and I certainly don’t know the city even remotely as well as Nairobians do. And there are people on the ground in Nairobi who’ve been working for years to find practical and feasible ways to breathe new life into the city’s transportation—as an example, the Digital Matatus project is a wonderful visualization of the current network. Guiding Nairobi into the future is a job for Nairobians, not for me.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a purpose to fantasy maps like mine. Even if my map doesn’t show a vision that’s feasible to build, it’s gotten people talking—Twitter says the second version of my map has been seen over a hundred thousand times, and that number keeps going up. Countless Nairobians have taken this map as a call to action—when people see how good the future of transit can be, people realize that the future of transit is worth fighting for. And so while my map may have sparked a widespread passion for transit in Nairobi, my greatest hope is that everyone who’s been inspired by my map will follow that inspiration to find the practical ways people are working on to improve transit—because if those projects gain more awareness, then that’s the next step towards building a better Nairobi.
And as for me, well…I’ll keep on making maps as I continue to pursue my screenwriting career! People who’ve seen my Nairobi map have asked me to make similar fantasy maps for other cities, such as Mombasa, Lusaka, Kampala, and Kigali, and I’m hoping to get at least a few of those done within the coming days. I’m incredibly honored to have made an impact in Nairobi, and I’ll definitely be very excited to see what happens next from here.
The Woman in a Leso
Every village has one. They may be disparaged as social misfits, openly loathed but secretly, they are admired because they are no longer afraid to be themselves in a society where people prefer to hide behind facades of good behaviour
The Amstelveen bus station is located under a large parking lot serving the Stadshart shopping mall where several luxury brands have stores. It is not the kind of bus station that I am used to and I find it quite sterile. The passenger platforms are wide and mostly empty and the walls on one end are a dull grey in a way that emphasises the often lugubrious weather in Amsterdam. There are two lanes where the buses enter and exit smoothly and on time. The drivers never honk their horns, or leave the engine running as they go off to look for a toilet. There are no touts jostling for customers or hawkers trying to catch the eyes of passengers through the windows. I have never seen a queue for the bus even in the rush hour. The efficiency of public transport in this new country can feel robotic and it does not encourage idling.
But today, I find myself idling because I did not bother to consult my transport app to time my departure to precision. The electronic bus schedule screen tells me that I have a twelve minute wait time for Bus 348 that takes me to Amsterdam South station where I can catch a train to the North.
From where I stand, I spot a motherly figure about 20 metres away walking calmly towards my direction. She stops in front of a pay point. The Netherlands uses a cashless system and you have to buy a ticket to use a bus, tram or train. She starts ruffling through her bag. I find myself staring at her unusual presence and instinctively straighten up as one does in the presence of a woman deemed to be in the age group of one’s mother. I have this sudden need to be helpful but all I do is stare at her.
Where has she come from? Did her son or daughter, probably an African expatriate send their old lady off to catch the bus on her own and now she had lost her way? Did she even know how to navigate the foreignness of this place?
I jump to all these conclusions based on her appearance. She is wrapped in patterned and coloured Swahili lesos (a shawl), one wrapped around her waist falling all the way down to her ankles, another over her woollen sweater and tied in a knot just over her chest. Her head is wrapped in a headscarf of the same pattern and colour design as the lesos. In a country where the default fashion style is dark and dull hooded jackets and boots, she stands out like a peacock fanning its tail feathers.
She is now standing in front of the pay point about 10 metres away from me. She has a branded shopping bag strapped on her shoulder and she reaches under her armpit to fetch items from its depths. I recognise the Nairobi-blue brand colors of the Albert Heijn supermarket chain. Her manner is nonchalant which leaves me conflicted. I am trying to be culturally appropriate and to ascertain that this elderly African woman is not having any challenge finding her way to the next destination. Yet, I am restrained because this is the Netherlands, the land of mind-your-own-business and don’t look me in the eye. Overly polite gestures are thought of as insincere and put on.
Her stout short build, her firm belly bulge and dark wry face is a familiar presence. One that I had met throughout my life, in rural market places in the early morning spreading out their fresh vegetables by the roadside or at funeral wakes, singing gospel hymns with the choir under a tarpaulin tent cover, facing a coffin on a chilly night, in the village.
The leso, also known as the khanga is a traditional rectangular shaped textile that is worn by women in East Africa. They come in an assortment of intricately patterned and colourful designs, and sometimes with a cautionary message, a Swahili proverb, written on one of its sides. The leso is a ridiculously versatile garment. It can function as a ground cover for sitting outside on the grass, a baby carrier for a working mother, a pouch to store valuables, a towel and a blanket. Only that I never imagined its function as a shawl for the cold in the early winter weather.
Kenyan oraturist and artist Mshai Mwangola, once called it, the cloth that speaks, and these lesos were speaking to me, transporting me back in time and place, to a world that was thousands of miles away from here.
The woman in a leso seems to be struggling with the pay station where one tops up the balance on their bus card. Maybe she needs the language of instruction changed? I begin to summon fresh courage to approach and politely ask whether she needs any assistance.
Then I notice that someone else had beaten me to it and I find myself getting possessive. Everything about this individual looks disheveled. He has on a layered faded green khaki jacket with deformed pockets.
I had seen this man earlier, squatting with his back against the wall and I thought that was an odd position to be in, on a Saturday afternoon in this upmarket location. There is an air of despondency around him and I get an even stronger urge to intervene. But he is already assisting her and fiddling with the pay point.
I notice his height. He must be Dutch, for they are a tall people who I think of as the Dinka of Europe. He is also gangly and he towers over the woman in a leso. I also notice that he has a lit cigarette in his free hand and that only serves to trouble me further.
Didn’t he know that this is a cultural faux pas? You never smoke in front of an elderly woman? Jesus Christ!!! Where are your manners?
This conversation is all going on in my head and I make no attempt to move in their direction, sparing only the occasional glance in order not to appear overly interested in the affairs of the woman in a leso.
She continues to speak to him as he fiddles with the machine and after a short while, it appears the problem has been resolved. Then, I see the tall man hand the old lady a lighter and she proceeds to extract a half smoked cigarette, that she lights up, taking a long drag like a smoker who just got off a 10 hour flight from Perth to Johannesburg.
The tall man resumes his earlier posture by the pay point.
The woman in a leso continues puffing away without a hurry in the world. Three young Asian women walking past her, frown disapprovingly. One even makes an attempt to sweep away with her hand, the cigarette smoke wafting up their path.
Two buses arrive in tandem. The 347 and the 348. As I wait for the passengers to disembark, I notice the woman in the leso talking to the driver as if seeking clarification. I think she has a firm authoritative voice but since I am out of earshot, I cannot make out what is said or catch her accent. After a minute, I see her walking back and she enters the 348, the same bus I am in.
The long red bus takes off, riding low and snaking smoothly around the roundabouts. At every next bus stop, the automatic doors open with a hissing sound and cold air from outside drifts into the bus. The passengers are subjected to routine recorded health safety announcements in both Dutch and English, “Please wear your face masks properly’’.
The woman in a leso has her mask under her nose and she is standing even though there are two empty seats next to her. One hand grips the railing firmly and she appears to be familiar with the rhythms of the bus, her feet steady and swaying with a fluidity I was not expecting.
The next stop is a narrow street lined with old trees with knotted trunks. The electronic signboard in the bus reads Kalfjeslaan. The bus stops for some time as the driver has to put out a ramp for an elderly lady in a wheelchair to disembark, so I take a moment to look at my surroundings. On the right side of the bus stop there is an aged church building in red brick with a tall bell tower next to it. On the opposite side across the road, I see a brown bar, a corner liquor store and next to it, a coffee shop named the Border. There is a motley mix of people standing in the queue facing the bold green signage of the coffee shop.
Then the woman in a leso appears in my view walking to join the queue with the same calmness as when I first set my eyes on her. I find myself chuckling under my face mask because I would never have guessed that the woman in a leso, the old lady I desperately wanted to assist, was a disciple of cannabis.
I wish I had caught her eye, standing at ease in that queue to the coffee shop. I would have told her…I know you are a complete stranger but I know you. You are my aunty from the village, the defiant one. The one who rolls her own cigarettes, smokes laced tobacco, drinks the local gin and the men, do not walk on her wrong side. You have probably refused to accept Christ as your personal saviour and do not have a single bone of affectation in your body. You are from the league of badly behaved women who were shunned by society because they were not demure and avoided because they only speak the truth.
Every village has one. They may be disparaged as social misfits, openly loathed but secretly, they are admired because they are no longer afraid to be themselves in a society where people prefer to hide behind facades of good behaviour.
This piece was first published on oyungapala.com
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